The Science of Sleepy

Ask a sleep researcher why we sleep, and s/he'll give you the simplest answer - which is sort of what scientists are all about -  because we get sleepy. Can't really argue with that.

The next question is why do we get sleepy? There is a part of your brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (or SCN, for those of us who don't have time to pronounce that and/or have a stutter) that regulates your sleep schedule, and makes you get your sleepy on. I think mine is working a double shift today. It's noon, and I want to go to bed.

Someone with a normal SCN has a routine sleep cycle: the same amount of sleep around the same time each day, but someone with an impaired SCN (or a lab mouse whose SCN was destroyed, say or me...stressed out, feeling unwell and trying to take care of a sick Adam and I use the word "trying" loosely) sleeps at random times for random durations.

There is a great variety of sleep behaviors in the animal kingdom, but nearly all animals exhibit some kind of sleep-like behavior. Even sponges slow down at night, although it's not clear whether or not that constitutes sleep. Weird eh? To make sleep yet more confusing and weird, scientists discovered that blind cave fish get by on almost no sleep at all. Maybe they evolved to need less sleep because their environment requires them to constantly be on the search for food, but I also read that this suggests that part of sleep's purpose is to process the visual input collected during waking hours. So no input, no need to process. But of course, blind humans still need sleep, so don't go and blindfold yourself so that you won't have to sleep. 'T'won't work.

Thus endeth my poor attempt to explain one of the most mysterious, complex, and yet totally familiar science topics, where what we know hardly compares to what we don't know. At this point you are likely asking yourself what the hey this post was about...

I need sleep. That is all.


  1. I would love to have a more regular sleep pattern - if only my hubby's snoring would allow it. ;)


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